There is nothing more boring than seeing a photographer try to translate a photobook into an exhibition, treating the gallery walls as though they are editorial layouts or sequential pages. In Something + Nothing, Stephen Shore avoids translation entirely by creating a new narrative for the past four decades of his work: one that takes advantage of the viewer’s physical movement through the gallery to make us temporarily forget when and where we have seen these images before.
Curated by Todd Levin, the exhibition presents sixty-five of Shore’s photographs taxonomically, rather than chronologically or by series. Here, photographs once part of autonomous series of works — including the landmark American Surfaces (1972 – 73) and Uncommon Places (1973 – 79) — are pulled from their original context and shown in the company of newer images, clustered around common formal themes. In one group, we are offered six still lifes of food, the leftovers of a Middle Eastern feast echoing but also dwarfing two sad, salad dressing-drenched plates of iceberg lettuce. In another, nine photographs meditate on cars: some in parking lots and at stoplights, some with religious talismans dangling from their rearview mirrors. A thick band of grey paint around the middle of the gallery walls anchors the groupings, evoking Store’s own preference for highway lanes and horizon lines, while also guiding the viewer through the space on a literal pathway.
Shore has the unique ability to document vernacular subjects with the formal casualness of a vacation snapshot but in a way that invests them with a kind of existential monumentality. In other words, he makes the overlooked details of everyday life important, plucking them from their place in space and time with the click of a well-placed shutter. Seen together, his photographs of American roadsides from the 1970s look as contemporary as his images of modern day Abu Dhabi. Scale is often the only giveaway about “when” we are seeing in Shore’s photographs. Keeping the size of the original images, the show lets the older snapshots brush up (sometimes quite literally) against the artist’s more recent large-scale prints.
The exhibition could just as easily have been titled Somewhere + Nowhere, for even Shore’s portraits are not studies of people so much as the places they inhabit. In one cluster, six photographs document a range of single-family homes, from a tacky faux castle in New Mexico to a spare bungalow in Ukraine and a beautiful walled garden in Jerusalem. With no captions and a minimum of extraneous details, it is difficult to tell where we are when we look at Shore’s images. If photography’s meanings are generated from its context — where and how it circulates — as much as its content, then Shore demonstrates the distinct possibilities of the gallery as a space for visual storytelling.